Previously on Gotham ... Ed protects Oswald the mayor, Butch is responsible for a red scare, and Ivy's sort of back but I don't care.
Now on Gotham ... are Ed and Oswald in love, who's that falling from above, and oh, hey look it's that kidnapping subplot even Gotham is tired of. You know that part of Lord of the Rings where Gollum and Smeagol are having a dissociative debate with themselves? "Follow the White Rabbit" feels a lot like that. As does my internal dialogue over whether or not I still like this show. Let's dig in.
There are basically two stories happening in "Follow the White Rabbit," and each of them represents a dialogue happening within the show as it struggles to figure out what it is and where it's going.
- Jervis Tetch blames Jim Gordon for the death of his sister, Alice, and decides to punish Jim by forcing him to decide who will live and who will die in multiple Sophie's-Choice-like scenarios. Tetch wants to show Gordon his true self, which seems apparent from the jump: Gordon is a man who barely trusts himself, but trusts everyone else even less, thus leaving him a self-appointed and deeply flawed messianic figure. Gordon all too easily accepts Tetch's promise that involving the GCPD will make things worse, and predictably finds himself forced to make a choice between his new love(?), Valerie Vale, and his former flame, Lee Thompson. The consequence is that both women are kidnapped, Valerie gets shot in the gut and hospitalized, and Lee's fiance is placed in peril as well. Nothing is gained, but lives are lost.
- On the flipside, Oswald is having a crisis of identity -- he's spent so long as someone with flunkies and not friends, can he admit to Ed that he loves him? Despite Ed's continued devotion to Oswald, Oswald can't quite get himself to say those three small words to Ed, only to empty rooms or to servants who don't speak English. And just when it seems like Oswald will finally come through at a romantic dinner, Ed runs into a woman who is a dead ringer for his previous love/murder victim, Kristen Kringle. And by dead ringer, I mean she is played by the same actress, Chelsea Spack. Is this new character, Isabella, another of Hugo Strange's monsters, or simply an unexpected member of Gotham's latest love triangle? Either way, her appearance begs the question of whether or not Gotham is really willing to go to a romantic place with Ed and Oswald.
I got a screener of this episode last week, and I still can't tell you if I like it or not. In lieu of "The Good" and "The Bad," I'm going to sub in an "On the one hand" and an "On the other" to show just how conflicted the show is and just how conflicted I am about the show.
ON THE ONE HAND
- Jim and Jervis are both being revealed within their own narratives as being deeply flawed and unreliable individuals. And while it may be obvious for Jervis's actions to yield negative results, it's Jim's ongoing story that is indeed revealing that, if you try to wrangle all the control for yourself, you'll not only be overwhelmed but also place others in danger in the process.
- And while they may be kidnapped, Valerie doesn't let her circumstances stop her from continuing to work her own angle of reporting on the details of Alice's tainted blood.
- While for weeks people said I was seeing things that weren't there, Gotham has said it in no uncertain terms: Oswald loves Ed. And while Ed may not have responded in kind at this point in word, his deeds suggest that the emotion is a mutual one. Penguin's sexuality has never been explored in this way before, and to do so on Gotham would be a very bold move. Just hearing Oswald admit his feelings at all is a pretty big moment.
ON THE OTHER HAND
- How many times must Gotham as a show tell a story wherein women's fates are decided by the decisions of men? We already know that Gordon's choices have a tendency to get the women in his life into trouble, just because it's being executed in a way that shows some narrative self-awareness may not be enough to make this plot feel appreciably less overdone.
- And while Valerie Vale really tries to pass that Bechdel test, Leslie Thompkins seems hell-bent on keeping their conversations fixated on Jim Gordon.
- And then there's the appearence of Kristen Kringle's doppleganger. In many ways this love triangle setup feels like the only way the Gotham writers could think of leaving the Oswald/Ed thing as unrequited queer bait. Let's be honest: they could very easily succumb to the "Bury Your Gays" trope if not for the fact that it would require killing one of the most famous members of Batman's rogues gallery.
Let me tell you what I see -- I see a Gotham whose creative and executive team are struggling with change. Somewhere in there is a desire to acknowledge the flaws of Jim Gordon (and the writing) and start pushing the show's female protagonists onto their own paths. But, simultaneously, it also feels as if there's an equal force trying to keep things as is. People are already watching, right? Why risk losing what you have just because a few pesky critics keep pointing out how unbelievably awful women are treated and represented on Gotham?
And it feels much the same when it comes to LGBT representation. There's a prickly relationship between showrunners in general and the LGBT community. On the one hand, a little carrot dangling in the hopes of representation can get queer folks salivating and live tweeting and watching the ads (a network's wet dream). But, on the other hand, it doesn't take much to turn that salivating excitement into a frothy rage if you don't know what you're doing. And I can already feel myself getting mighty taken advantage of by all this "will they or won't they" Ed/Oswald stuff when, each week, it feels more and more like they won't.
On the one hand, plenty of TV love stories get temporarily stymied by an added party. On the other hand, though, Gotham's record with LGBT stories ain't great (let's not forget Barbara and Renee from seaon one). We're all aware at this point that queer characters have a tendency to get killed off when love is in the air. Again, it feels like a struggle behind the scenes -- someone wants to take the risk and tell that gay love story, but someone else is making that "but we gotta keep the middle states" happy argument.
Gotham has become a push-pull argument buried within its own narrative over what the right story is to tell and what story will grab the best ratings. And for this reviewer, there's a push and pull between staying because of the complex stories we are getting and jumping ship for fear of getting the same kind of tired story that rebuffs women and LGBT fans in favor of the same old same old.
Gotham and its creative team are capable of writing good stories and complex characters, but week after week I watch them get in their own way. And that is the most, "Oh Gotham ..." thing of all. I can only hope in the coming weeks that will change.